On March 7, National Urban League President Marc Morial and civil rights leaders from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C., to share their concerns with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about voting rights, criminal justice reform, hate crimes and the direction of the Justice Department.
Sessions initiated the meeting shortly after he was confirmed by Congress, and Morial said it was “candid.”
But since then, the attorney general has criticized consent-decree agreements, directed federal prosecutors to adhere to stricter sentencing guidelines and left Morial questioning whether the meeting had any impact on Sessions.
“From what I’ve seen, the answer would be not really,” Morial said.
He recently reiterated his concerns in the Urban League’s annual report, “State of Black America,” which highlighted progress in lowering the Black unemployment rate, decreasing high school dropout rates and reducing the number of Blacks without health insurance. Despite those gains, Morial noted in the report that the administration’s “suggested double-digit cuts, or the outright elimination of funding for vital programs and services, would devastate already vulnerable citizens and working families.”
Morial said the report’s “Protect Our Progress” theme “reflects how far we’ve come, and the new threats that are on the horizon.”
One such threat, Morial said, is Trump’s proposed cuts to the public safety net, which would be “potentially devastating to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, and to the nation’s Black and Brown communities.”
People’s access to health care is very much at risk as well, Morial said: “Any effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act could strip away the progress we’ve made in reducing the number of uninsured in the country.”
Morial continued: “When people don’t have access to health insurance, they don’t have access to a doctor, to a hospital, to medicine, to therapy, and therefore health problems and illness goes unaddressed. They can’t pay attention to, and can’t afford to take the preventative steps that are necessary.”
This could lead to people going bankrupt because they can’t pay their medical bills, Morial said.
“When they can’t pay, they’re forced into collections,” Morial said. “When they’re forced into collections they get sued, when they get sued, judgments, they end up bankrupt.”
Hard-fought gains for civil rights laws and enforcement of those laws could also be lost, Morial said.
“The recent proposals to, if you will, cut back or roll back the enforcement of civil rights laws could take us back 50 years,” he said, “because it’s been a 50-year march towards, not only civil rights laws, but the strong enforcement of those laws by the executive branch.”
Among the ways Trump is attempting to roll back civil rights progress is through the creation of a voter fraud commission, Morial said, calling it “a complete sham.”
“There’s no reason for there to be a voting rights commission,” Morial said. “It’s a complete waste of time, and it’s just an effort to pave the way for a national campaign of mass voter suppression.”
Morial also lamented that Sessions plans to enforce strict sentencing guidelines.
“What the attorney general wants to do is inconsistent with what I call ‘prevailing public opinion,’ even in the law enforcement community,” Morial said. “Progressive law enforcement executives believe we’ve got to get away from the old ‘lock-em up, throw-em away, throw-away the key’ criminal justice and police policies.
“They haven’t worked,” Morial said. “They exacerbate the problem. We need a fresh new look, and even though Jeff Sessions has signaled a retrenchment, many states are moving forward with criminal justice reform.”
Morial also noted that locking prisoners up is an expensive way to deal with criminal justice.
“There are better ways than locking them up and throwing away the key, particularly with nonviolent offenders,” Morial said.
Though civil rights leaders might not have gotten through to Sessions during their meeting, Morial said the Urban League will continue to “resist efforts to push back the hands of progress when it comes to civil rights enforcement at the justice department.”
“We are going to use our bully pulpit around the country,” Morial said. “We are going to educate the public why these steps don’t make sense.”
Morial said the country needs to have a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination — whether in voting, education, the workplace and whether based on race, creed, color, religion, gender or gender identity.
“Our coalition will remain very vigilant about that,” Morial said. “Because this is about who we are as a nation.”
“The public has to be active on social media,” Morial said. “The public has got to vote, they’ve got to be involved in city council meetings, be involved in school board meetings, be involved at the legislative level, be active, lend their voice, be civically engaged. Don’t be a spectator. Be a part of the effort to protect our progress.”
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